Back in the winter of 2002, Kipp Nelson found himself at the Salt Lake City Olympics, crashing a party at the USA House. It was there where he unsuspectingly bumped into Bill Marolt, his former collegiate ski coach at the University of Colorado, who at the time was also the CEO of USSA.
“I thought he was going to throw me out because he knew I didn’t have a VIP pass but instead, over a beer, he convinced me to become a trustee,” remembers Nelson.
Seventeen years later, Nelson is starting his first month as Chairman of the Board of Directors at U.S. Ski & Snowboard. After his election to the position last fall, he will succeed outgoing Chairman, Dexter Paine. After becoming a trustee in 2002, Nelson has been active on the organization’s Board of Trustees since 2005 and he has also served nine years on the Board of Directors before the start of his Chairmanship. As Chairman, Nelson will be responsible for the governance of U.S. Ski & Snowboard and be a key player in the greater financial direction of the organization in the years to come. He will also greatly influence decisions regarding athlete experience and the general culture of the organization.
After a six-month transition period, Nelson formally took over as Chairman at the conclusion of the 2019 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress in Park City, Utah, last month.
“I had as good of an introduction to the job as I could have imagined,” Nelson says. “When it was announced around November that I was elected, Dexter said, ‘Ok, here’s the deal. I’ll take 80 percent of the job right now and you do 20 percent. We’ll ease it down so by the time Congress happens, I’m at 20 percent and you’re at 80 percent.’ That actually really worked great because Dexter was doing all the heavy lifting at the beginning and I got to be the observer.”
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Nelson took to skiing at an early age after a family trip to the mountains and never looked back.
“Pretty early on, my family wanted to go to the beach every weekend when they could but when they first took me skiing when I was four or five, I don’t know, it was probably the only thing in my life where I immediately knew that this was for me,” he explains. “I hustled in any way I could to get myself up to the mountains.”
Nelson quickly became involved with the legendary Squaw Valley Ski Team before moving on to NCAA powerhouse, the University of Colorado, where he continued his racing career and completed his degree in economics. A near 20-year career in finance followed in such far-flung places as London and Hong Kong before Nelson stepped away from the industry, moved back to the mountains of Sun Valley, Idaho, and eventually found himself sneaking into a USA House party, serendipitously starting his journey with U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
“I was rolling off of my eight-year term on the board and I was really kind of sad about that because I was thinking that I had spent so much time on this and hadn’t felt like I had quite the impact that I wanted to,” Nelson says about his decision to pursue becoming Chairman. “I was trying to figure out what I can do given that I was terming out of my board position and was a little confused as to what was the right path there.”
Then, one year ago, after Paine announced to the board that he was to leave the position, Nelson was approached by Paine and U.S. Ski & Snowboard CEO, Tiger Shaw, about the possibility of running for Chairman. Initially reluctant, Nelson eventually came around to the idea and after a summer of meetings and campaigning to current board members, he was elected to the position last November.
“That was definitely a bigger role than I had been thinking, to be honest,” Nelson admits. “The more I learned about the job, I really felt like I was ready to work on components like finances and how we can try to increase revenues and get the best out of our expenses and, in particular, the culture around the athletes. Those are things I’m really interested in so I thought I would throw my hat in the ring.”
Paine, himself a former ski racer, has been involved with U.S. Ski & Snowboard since 1995 and was first elected Chairman in 2006. Paine served two terms as Chairman and oversaw the retirement of Marolt after an 18-year tenure as CEO and the subsequent leadership change to Shaw in 2014. U.S. Ski & Snowboard underwent some dramatic changes during that time with several new sports coming into the organization with the inclusion of more snowboarding and freeskiing events as Olympic sports over the past few Games.
“He and I are both former alpine racers but this organization is so much broader,” explains Paine. “When you think about our 180 or so named athletes, they’re spread from alpine, nordic combined, cross-country, jumping, snowboarding, and freeskiing. It’s a really broad group of athletes and trying to understand all of those sports takes an enormous amount of time and energy and Kipp has really dedicated himself to get up to speed about the organization.”
Nelson sees this multi-sport dynamic as not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for him and the organization going forward. Although it is entirely within the realm of possibility to become a world-class freeskier or snowboarder as a teenager, much like Chloe Kim and Red Gerrard have, in some cases, a cross-country or alpine athlete might not realize their full potential until they reach their 30s. Multiple sports means multiple cultures and opinions about how to best operate, making individual athlete and sport input to the board an essential piece of good governance.
“I feel like fairly recently, athlete reps and sports reps have had a much stronger voice than maybe they had back in the day,” Nelson says. “That’s been, I think, really a strength to get that input and not have decisions being made by just a few people. I think the epiphany we came to is that medals and podiums are actually an outcome of the journey and the process that every athlete is going through. That’s an important cultural point; it’s about all the athletes and not just the few star performers.”
“Culture” has been the buzzword over the past year at U.S. Ski & Snowboard with athletes and staff actively working across all sports to build a better culture at the organization through improved communication channels, team building camps, and, perhaps most importantly, a renewed focus on the years-old problem of athlete funding by the board and executive staff.
“The finances are something we need to continue to be working on,” Nelson says. “That’s the base building block because that will help the athlete culture; it’s necessary but not sufficient. It’s hard to have athletes feel like we’ve got their best interests at heart if we’re constantly unable to fully fund them.”
These efforts culminated in the recent announcement that all A, B, and C Team athletes will be fully funded through various means this coming season. Nelson will be aiming to continue this positive shift and strive for a long-term solution to these issues in the coming years.
Although Paine’s tenure as Chairman has ended, the New Hampshire native isn’t going very far as he will continue as a member of the board at U.S Ski & Snowboard as well as maintain his role as a member of the FIS Council, a position he has held since 2014.
With current FIS President, Gian Franco Kasper, at 75-years-old, a leadership change at the international governing body is likely on the horizon. Through his seat on the FIS Council, Paine is in a unique position to add his voice to the process surrounding that change, whenever it does occur.
“I spent five years as both Chairman at U.S. Ski & Snowboard and on the FIS Council,” Paine says. “It will be really nice to have more time to dedicate to really driving change at FIS and to really make sure that we’re a constructive part of the transition from Gian Franco Kasper to whoever becomes the next President of the organization. After 22 years of Gian Franco’s leadership, it’s a really important decision for the council and for FIS.”
Nelson, who recently ventured back into the finance world and currently is a partner at a New York City based private equity fund, will not only be busy with his current nine-to-five, but also with the new responsibilities of steering U.S. Ski & Snowboard into a new era.
“I am definitely fired up for this thing and I find that I’m having to pull myself away from it quite often to do my day job,” adds Nelson. “It really feels like the connectivity between the board and management is evolving in a way that I think all of us feel we’ve needed to have. It feels different than it did a few years ago.”